In the final days of World War II, after the Germans had surrendered in Europe, the Japanese still fought hard thinking they could win. Even after numerous bombing raids on Tokyo and of course, the flight of the Enola Gay, Japan’s surrender was always one of condition as set forth by Emperor Hirohito in hopes that some honor could be salvaged in a country where honor is more important that anything else.
Emperor is a film that picks up right after the Japanese surrendered aboard the U.S.S. Missouri in 1945. General Douglas MacArthur (Tommy Lee Jones), along with a handful of selected general’s, military staffers, and MPs are flying to Tokyo to begin the occupation, and the investigation of the principal actors in Japan’s hierarchy for the inevitable trials for war crimes.
General Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox) serves under MacArthur and had spent five years in Japan before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Because of his knowledge of the people and their culture, MacArthur charges Fellers to investigate Emperor Hirohito himself, which sets upon a series of events that could have deep consequences to American forces stationed in country.
Emperor, on the surface, tries to be an historical political thriller. Screenwriters Vera Blasi and David Klass (based off the book by Shiro Okamoto) set the table with an interesting premise, and director Peter Webber does an excellent job fulfilling his end of the production by juggling the scenes and pacing to keep the story moving. In fact, after learning about the Emperor and his place in the Japanese culture, and how those facts were presented and reinforced, when Hirohito is finally introduced it feels almost like an honor to lay eyes on royalty. This is what Emperor does so well.
What truly fails is Matthew Fox as General Fellers. Fox lacks the gravitas to carry a role like this, and his painful-to-watch dogpaddling in a sea of much better actors and a story surrounded by so much death and destruction (Hiroshima and Nagasaki had just happened!) made me uncomfortable.
There is also an underlying side story about Fellers and a Japanese girl named Aya Shimada (Eriko Hatsune) and how they met at an American university and fell in love. Aya leaves Fellers to go back to Japan as tensions between the US and Japan began during the US oil embargo, and of course he risks all to follow. Finally the side story culminates in Fellers trying to locate her in present day, all the while conducting his investigation.
This side/love story is there for Fox to really sink his teeth into, and once again, the material outmatches him. Matthew Fox was great as Jack Shepard on Lost, as his portrayal of a surgeon out of his element and trying to find salvation works for TV, but a film career may not be in his career path.
On the contrary to Fox’s failings, Tommy Lee Jones is rather fantastic as MacArthur, showing us the leader of the Pacific Theater’s bravado and “American swagger” as he says early on. Jones is in his best element when he is allowed to play in a sandbox like Emperor, which sadly affects Fox, as it is like watching a baby fight a Polar Bear in an ice storm.
Emperor is a good movie hurt by its lead and it could have been great had the screenwriters ditched the side story and focused more on the politicking and cover ups and the overall animosity presented by American forces trying to conduct military business in war-torn Tokyo. This could easily have been this generation’s A Few Good Men, but sadly will most likely drift away into obscurity and countless showings on the History Channel, sandwiched between repeat episodes of Pawn Stars and whatever big budget gimmick production based off the bible that the History Channel will show that year.
Emperor is rated PG-13 and opens across the US on March 8, 2013.